I recently had a coaching conversation with a newly promoted leader who was feeling frustrated. Her team was not performing to the degree that she thought needed, and she constantly felt like she had to step in and take the reins in order to keep project meetings on track and the projects themselves headed for success. By the end of each day, it seemed she had little time to work at her own job, often finding she had to stay late to answer emails and follow up on her commitments. Her energy was spent and the frustration with her team depleted much of the joy she had for her job.
I asked her a question that encouraged her to step back and reflect a bit: “What do you want?” She thought about it for a minute and then answered: “I want my team to do what I want them to do!”
Now we really had something to explore.
Many times new leaders (and, at times, seasoned leaders, as well) get securely attached to their own ways of performing a job; their way is the right way because, as their personal experience demonstrates, it’s those very skills and techniques that got them into the position they now hold; it’s because they did a great job.
But here’s where leaders might get derailed. If they hold fast to what they know best, their expertise, they squander the opportunity to truly lead.
Rooke and Torbert (2005) suggest that great leaders are not differentiated by their personality or management style, but rather their “action logics”—how they react (or act) when they step (or are pulled) out of their comfort zone. People, according to the model, fall into one of seven of these action logics, which include such groupings as achievers, experts, diplomats, strategists, and individualists. When we allow ourselves to step back, reflect, consider others’ perspectives or ways of doing a task, we ourselves grow to be more inclusive and relational in our leadership capacity. And, by doing so, we can also transform how our organization develops across teams by modeling the same behaviors and, by extension, enriching the environment for others to also develop.
Rooke and Torbert (2005) further suggest that most of our working population rests within the action logic stage of “expert”—actually 38% of the working population—someone who may be well-suited as an individual contributor due to his or her technical expertise and, possibly, less suited to be the developmental leader needed to grow others.
Here’s the opportunity.
When leaders are willing to practice new habits of letting go, and allow their team members to try new things (and, perhaps, perform tasks that might not map directly to what they would have done), amazing and wonderful things happen – for both the leader and the team. In Rooke and Torbert’s (2005) “action logic” language, this behavior demonstrates a later stage of development called the “achiever” stage (30% of the population), which occurs when a leader expands her capacity to focus on team development and team goals, rather than on personal expertise and personal goals. As you might imagine, as adults expand their capacity to let go, step back, and enable others to take more responsibility, make more independent decisions, and deepen their capacity to “lead in place” (Wergin, 2007), this leadership growing pattern becomes more challenging; leaders must be able to enter into the unknown and trust others’ capacity to lead. This leadership development process enables teams the opportunity to step up and take the lead on projects, and to learn from both their successes and mistakes. The leader, in turn, gets to learn new ways of doing tasks and, by extension of the willingness to let go, deepens the loyalty and trust across the team.
My client decided to give it a go to let go and see what would happen. She decided to let herself lead. What she noticed was enlightening! Her relationships with her team members became richer, their creativity soared, and they began to make decisions independently. She then gained more time to work on her own tasks, thinking and planning strategically (and was able to answer her emails in time to get home to her family at a reasonable hour). She grew as a leader and gained the respect of upper management as her team achieved results that exceeded expectations.
A simple shift of thinking can make all the difference as we commit to growing ourselves as leaders and growing our teams. Letting go of what we know and letting ourselves lead can be that simple shift.
Rooke, D., & Torbert, W. R. (2005). 7 transformations of leadership. Harvard Business Review, 83(4), 66-76.
Wergin, J. F. (2007). Leadership in place: How academic professionals can find their leadership voice. Bolton, Mass: Anker Pub. Co.